Formal and casual near St Pancras International

St Pancras

Nick finally reports from London! Above, the Victorian monument that is St Pancras as seen by a drone. The Midland Grand Dining Room is on the ground floor on the extreme left. The Eurostar extension can be seen top right.

The Midland Grand Dining Room and Magenta are two newish restaurants on opposite sides of the busy Euston Road outside King’s Cross and St Pancras stations in London, very handy for the Eurostar.

Both are on the ground floor of hotels: the Midland Grand in the Renaissance Hotel that sits directly above the station while Magenta is across Euston Road in the Megaro Hotel. They both have a design feature that gives the age of their construction away.

The Midland Grand was formerly The Gilbert Scott (named after the entire building’s eminent Victorian architect) and was run for a decade by chef Marcus Wareing. In March this year it reopened as the third manifestation of a partnership between the developer Harry Handelsman and the talented chef Patrick Powell. They met originally at the Chiltern Firehouse before going on to open the Allegra restaurant together in The Stratford Hotel, east London.

Midland Grand Dining Room

It is only too obvious why the setting appealed to Powell. The room, by day and by night, is equally elegant. Its outer wall is curved and the high windows in the inner wall allow in a lot of natural light. The ceiling is unusually high and the amount of thick fabric, from the carpets to the cushions, means that the acoustics are naturally very good. There is plenty of space between the tables (round table 33 was perfect for our party of six on my first visit). The pillars are marble; the large mirrors gleam; the chairs are extremely comfortable; and the light fittings have been chosen with sensitivity and effect in mind. The room lives up to its name: it is grand – not extremely grand, but comfortably so.

There is only one thing missing: there is no sign of a chef anywhere. The room was designed in an era when chefs, like small children, were neither seen nor heard, and here the kitchen is entirely underground, down a flight of stairs from the dining room. This means that all the food has to be carried up from the kitchen by young men with strong arms before being handed over to the waiting staff, ably managed by general manager Emma Underwood.  (Note, the service charge here is 15% rather than the usual 12.5%.)

This lack of a visible kitchen – the common factor referred to in the first paragraph – comes as something of a shock; open kitchens have become almost the norm in restaurants today. This is not only because that seems to be what the customers and the chefs seem to want but also because such a design can cut down staffing costs for the restaurateur. But here there is just the vista of a grand dining room – not even a seafood bar at one end as in so many Conran-designed brasseries of yore.

Powell has entered into the spirit of the room and of the vision for the restaurant by writing an enormous menu. There are five dishes designed to be shared by an entire table, including some excellent gougères stuffed with Comté; four shellfish dishes; four salads; six entrées; seven individual main courses and three to share that include a barbecued monkfish tail; a roast duck à l’orange and an 800 g rib of beef with a sauce Choron; and four side dishes including delicious potato dauphinoise and an extremely well-dressed house salad. The accompaniments are almost as complicated. There are Pommes Paillasson (aka potato latkes) with the snails; a red pepper-and-almond stew with the grilled poussin; and a duck-fat Parker House roll accompanies the liver parfait with truffle and Madeira jelly.

Then there are the desserts: two lots of petits fours; five flavours of ice cream and sorbets; and five puddings including baba au rhum, today’s favourite, and a ‘bombe Alaska’ to share. Plus a plate of French and British cheeses, of course. In total, that makes 43 different dishes. Surely, too many?

Powell trained under chefs with a strong French background. At L’Ecrivain in Dublin; under Andrew McConnell in Australia; under Nuno Mendes at the Chiltern Firehouse; and under Anthony Demetre at Wild Honey. But that was in an era when chefs and cooks were plentiful. Today, sadly they are not.

Midland Grand fruits de mer

Having said this, I should add that everything that we ate was either good or excellent. The grilled langoustines (£7 each) with the shared seafood platter (£95 and shown above); the twice-baked goat’s cheese souffle with a watercress velouté (£25); the navarin of confit lamb with braised carrots (£32); and the roasted cep-and-champagne risotto with aged parmesan (£28). Their crème caramel and twice-baked chocolate cake (below) were as good, too. The food bill for six came to £460 including service (we paid corkage of £80 per magnum on a magnum of Kumeu River, Hunting Hill Chardonnay 2014 and another of Ch Canon 2001 St-Émilion) and, subsequently, £112 for lunch for two without wine.

Midland Grand twice baked chocolate cake

But while I admire Handelsman’s vision and Powell’s execution, I left the Midland Grand wondering whether their opening tactics are appropriate. The place was very quiet when I returned for lunch. Perhaps their policy should have been to titillate and draw in as many diners as possible and only then slowly extend the menu? Their set-price lunch menu is expensive at £42 with only limited choice. A shorter fixed-price dinner menu, with supplements, with perhaps half of the current menu’s dishes might be more appropriate. Times and tastes have changed – even if the location of the kitchen has not.

A further similarity between these two restaurants is that each has two entrances. The Midland Grand has an entrance off the terrace that faces the Euston Road through a noisy bar and another via the main hotel entrance while the Magenta has an entrance via its trattoria Spagnoletti (complete with a London telephone kiosk painted bright yellow) and a main one (although next to a major building site) on the corner of Belgrove Street just off Euston Road.

Magenta's yellow telephone kiosk

Magenta’s interior seems far ‘busier’, and certainly much more casual, than across the road in the Midland Grand. It has been designed by Henry Chebaane of Blue Sky Hospitality to pick up on the hotel’s Victorian industrial architecture, using a palette of coal, steel and oak, but with the colour magenta prominent elsewhere.

Magenta interior

The kitchen here is in the basement but, rather than relying on human physical strength to carry up all the food, there are two electric lifts from the basement to the ground floor. Watching the staff load and unload the lifts brought back – as though it was yesterday – my years at L’Escargot when we had to rely entirely on electric lifts, and a call to Hammond & Champness, our on-call lift engineers, sent a chill through my heart and meant another dent in the bank balance.

Magenta sweetbread

The menu is somewhat simpler than the Midland Grand’s. There are four antipasti, four primi and four secondi in total but quite a range within these. I began with crisp sweetbreads on a bed of borlotti beans, girolle mushrooms and tarragon (shown above) while our two friends enjoyed their version of panzanella (this was during a hot September). This was followed for me by a piece of skate cooked in langoustine butter and topped with a langoustine tartare (see below) while others enjoyed sea bass with mussels and courgette flowers. The desserts are excellent: a warm apricot souffle with amaretti ice cream and a bowl of beautifully smooth salted caramel ice cream. With this we drank, and enjoyed, a bottle of Rugrà, Scateja 2016 Monferrato Nebbiolo (£50) from an all-Italian wine list and we paid a bill of £340.31 for four including 12.5% service.

Magenta skate

I can still recall King’s Cross–St Pancras in the early 2000s when I first began working as a consultant there. It was unloved. Today it is a far more exciting area and these are just two of the numerous restaurants where one can eat and drink extremely well.

The Midland Grand Dining Room St Pancras Renaissance Hotel, Euston Road, London NW1 2AR; +44 (0)20 7341 3000

Magenta Megaro Hotel, 23 Euston Road, London NW1 2SD; +44 (0)20 3146 0222 

Main photo credit: blue sky in my pocket via Getty Images